Hashtag Activism: #crimingwhilewhite vs. #alivewhileblack

Via this article from the Guardian, where Jessica Valenti describes how the “latest viral hashtag started on Wednesday night after the Garner decision came down and, using it, white people have detailed crimes they’ve committed without much trouble (let alone violence) from authorities. The hashtag is meant to be a glimpse into the incredible world of white privilege, where you can shoplift and get away with itdine and dash with impunitytell a cop to fuck off or even have one drive you to the ATM for bail money on the way to jail.”

Valenti says that the hashtag, while meant to help, actually perpetuates rather than undercuts white privilege. According to Valenti:

“While these stories do highlight just how biased law enforcement in the US really can be, #CrimingWhileWhite has the unfortunate side effect of redirecting focus from the continued police violence against communities and people of color back to white people and their experiences. (Nate Silver’s post-Ferguson “burrito” story, which was widely condemned as tone-deaf, is unfortunately typical of the genre.)

White people acknowledging white privilege is important, but in the midst of national tragedies, tweeting about how you got away with criminal acts feel like a performance of awareness that you are privileged rather than what we really need – a dismantling of the power obtained through that privilege.”

I disagree — the hashtag #crimingwhilewhite forces white people to unpack what Peggy McIntosh calls the “invisible knapsack” of white privilege.  In a her classic 1988 essay, McIntosh described how she unpacked her invisible knapsack by identifying “conditions of daily experience that I once took for granted” which included things like “If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.” According to McIntosh,  “obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.”  In order to “redesign social systems,” says McIntosh, “we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions.”

Contributing stories to the #crimingwhilewhite hashtag, and reading all these side by side with the #alivewhileblack stories (which you can do easily with this Storify by Haley Whisennand) is a collective unpacking of the backpack for white people in America and elsewhere.  It’s a small step but we need to start somewhere.

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